Ever since, years ago, I coined the expression “McFB way of life” and particularly since my intriguing FB articles (Is there life after Facebook I and II) have been published, I was confronted with numerous requests to clarify the meaning. My usual answer was a contra-question: If humans hardly ever question fetishisation or oppose the (self-) trivialization, why then is the subsequent brutalization a surprise to them?
Not pretending to reveal a coherent theory, the following lines are my instructive findings, most of all on the issue why it is time to go home, de-pirate, and search for a silence.
Largely drawing on the works of the grand philosophers of the German Classicism and Dialectic Materialism, it was sociologist Max Weber who was the first – among modern age thinkers – to note that the industrialized world is undergoing a rapid process of rationalization of its state (and other vital societal) institutions. This process – Weber points out – is charac-terized by an increased efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control over any ‘threat’ of uncertainty. Hereby, the uncertainty should be understood in relation to the historically unstable precognitive and cognitive human, individual and group, dynamics. A disheartened, cold and calculative over-rationalization might lead to obscurity of irrationality, Weber warns. His famous metaphor of the iron cage or irrationality of rationality refers to his concern that an extremely rationalized (public) institution inevitably alienates itself and turns dehumanized to both, those who staff them and those they serve, with a tiny upper caste of controllers steadily losing touch of reality.
Revisiting, rethinking and rejuvenating Weber’s theory (but also those of Sartre, Heidegger, Lukács, Lefebvre, Horkheimer, Marcuse and Bloch), it was the US sociologist George Ritzer who postulated that the late 20th century institutions are rationalized to a degree that the entire state becomes ‘McDonaldized’, since the principles of the fast food industry have gradually pervaded other segments of society and very aspects of life (The McDonaldization of Society, a controversial and highly inspiring book of popular language, written in 1993).
Thus paraphrased, Ritzer states that (i) McEfficiency is achieved by the systematic elimination of unnecessary time or effort in pursuing an objective. As the economy has to be just-in-time competitively productive, society has to be efficient as well. Corresponding to this mantra, only a society whose forms and contents are governed by business models, whose sociability runs on marketing principles is a successfully optimized polity. Premium efficiency in the workplace (or over broader aspects of sociableness) is attainable by introducing F.W. Taylor’s and H. Ford’s assembly line into human resources and their intellectual activity (sort of intellectual assembly line). Even an average daily exposure to the so-called news and headlines serves an instructive and directional rather than any informational and exploratory purpose. Hence, McEfficiency solidifies the system, protecting its karma and dharma from any spontaneity, digression, unnecessary questioning and experimenting or surprise.
(ii) McCalculability is an attempt to measure quality in terms of quantity, whereby quality becomes secondary, if at all a concern. The IT sector, along with the search engines and cyber -social clubs, has considerably contributed to the growing emphasis on calculability. Not only the fast food chains (1 billion meals, everybody-served-in-a-minute), Google, Facebook, TV Reality Shows, and the like, as well as the universities, hospitals, travel agencies – all operate on a nearly fetishised and worshiped ‘most voted’, ‘frequently visited’,‘most popular’, a big is beautiful, matrix. It is a calculability which mystically assures us that the BigMac is always the best meal – given its quantity; that the best reader is always a bestseller book; and that the best song is a tune with the most clicks on YouTube. One of the most wanted air carriers, AirAsia, has a slogan: Everyone can fly now. In the world where everyone is armed with mobile-launcher gadgets powered by the micro-touch, soft-screen & scream tech to add to the noisy cacophony – amount, size, frequency, length and volume is all what matters. Thus, a number, a pure digit becomes the (Burger) king. Long Yahoo, the king! Many of my students admitted to me that Google for them is more than a search engine; that actually googalization is a well-domesticated method, which considerably and frequently replaces the cognitive selection when preparing their assignments and exams. Ergo, instead of complementing, this k(l)icky-Wiki-picky method increasingly substitutes the process of human reasoning.
(iii) McPredictability is the key factor of the rationalized McDonalds process. On the broader scale, a rational (rationally optimized) society is one in which people know well beforehand what (and when) to expect. Hence, fast food is always mediocre – it never tastes very bad or very good. The parameter of McFood is therefore a surprise-less world in which equally both disappointment and delight are considerably absent. McMeals will always blend uniform preparation and contents, as well as the standardized serving staff outfit and their customized approach. In the end, it is not about food at all. What makes McDonalds so durably popular is a size, numbers and predictability. (All three are proportionately and causally objectivized and optimized: a meal, who serves it and those served – until the locality and substance of each of the three becomes fluid, obsolete and irrelevant. And what would symbolize this relativization and /self-/trivialization better than a clown – well-known mascot Ronald of McDonaldland). In such an atmosphere of predictability or better to say predictive seduction and gradual loss of integrity, the culture of tacit obedience (ignorance of self-irrelevance through the corrosive addiction) is breeding, even unspotted. Consequently, more similarities than differences is the central to a question of predictability, on both ends: demand (expectation, possibility) and supply (determination, probability). No wonder that even the Pirates offer just a routinized protests under only one simplified and uniformed, ‘anonymous’ mask for all.
(iv) McControl represents the fourth and final Weberian aspect for Ritzer. Traditionally (ever since the age of cognitivity), humans are the most unpredictable element, a variable for the rationalized, bureaucratic systems, so it is an imperative for the McOrganization to (pacify through) control. Nowadays, technology offers a variety of palliatives and tools for the effective control of both employers (supply, probability) and customers (demand, possibility), as well as to control the controllers. A self-articulation, indigenous opinionation, spontaneous initiative and unconstrained action is rather simulated, yet stimulated very seldom. Only once the wide spectrum of possibilities is quietly narrowed down, a limited field of probabilities will appear so large. To this end, the IT appliances are very convenient (cheap, discreet and invisible, but omnipresent and highly accurate) as they compute, pre-decide, channel and filter moves, as well as they store and analyze behavior patterns with their heartless algorithms. (The ongoing SOPA, PIPA and ACTA fuss or any other rendering stringent regulative in future does not constitute, but only confirms and supplements its very cyber nature.)
Aided by the instruments of efficiency, calculability and predictability, the control eliminates (the premium or at least minimizes any serious impact of) authenticity, autonomous thinking and independent (non-consumerist) judgment. Depth and frequency of critical insights and of unpredictable human actions driven by unexpected conclusions is rationalized to a beforehand calculable, and therefore tolerable few. Hyper-rationalized, frigid-exercised, ultra-efficient, predictable and controlled environment subscribes also a full coherence to the socio-asymmetric and dysfunctional-emphatic atmosphere of disaffected but ultimately obedient subjects (‘guided without force’, ‘prompted without aim’, “poked, tweeted & fleshmobbed for ‘fun”, ‘useful idiots’, ‘fitting the social machine without friction’). Hence, what is welcomed is not an engagement, but compliance: a self-actualization through exploration challenges while consumerism confirms – status quo. Veneration of nullity!
Ergo, the final McSociety product is a highly efficient, predictable, computed, standardized, typified, instant, unison, routinized, addictive, imitative and controlled environment which is – paradoxically enough – mystified through the worshiping glorification (of scale). Subjects of such a society are fetishising the system and trivializing their own contents – smooth and nearly unnoticed trade-off. When aided by the IT in a mass, unselectively frequent and severe use within the scenery of huge shopping malls (enveloped by a consumerist fever and spiced up by an ever larger cyber-neurosis, disillusional and psychosomatic disorders, and functional illiteracy of misinformed, undereducated, cyber-autistic and egotistic under-aged and hardly-aged individuals – all caused by the constant (in)flow of clusters of addictive alerts on diver-ting banalities), it is an environment which epitomizes what I coined as the McFB way of life.
This is a cyber–iron cage habitat: a shiny but directional and instrumented, egotistic and autistic, cold and brutal place; incapable of vision, empathy, initiative or action. It only accelerates our disconnection with a selfhood and the rest. If and while so, is there any difference between Gulag and Goo(g)lag – as both being prisons of free mind? Contrary to the established rhetoric; courage, solidarity, vision and initiative were far more monitored, restricted, stigmatized and prosecuted than enhanced, supported and promoted throughout the human history – as they’ve been traditionally perceived like a threat to the inaugurated order, a challenge to the functioning status quo, defiant to the dogmatic conscripts of admitted, permissible, advertized, routinized, recognized and prescribed social conduct.
Elaborating on a well known argument of ‘defensive modernization’ of Fukuyama, it is to state that throughout the entire human history a technological drive was aimed to satisfy the security (and control) objective; and it was rarely (if at all) driven by a desire to (enlarge the variable and to) ease human existence or to enhance human emancipation and liberation of societies at large. Thus, unless operationalized by the system, both intellectualism (human autonomy, mastery and purpose), and technological breakthroughs were traditionally felt and perceived as a threat.
Consequently, all cyber-social networks and related search engines are far away from what they are portrayed to be: a decentralized but unified intelligence, attracted by gravity of quality rather than navigated by force of a specific locality. In fact, they primarily serve the predictability, efficiency, calculability and control purpose, and only then they serve everything else – as to be e.g. user-friendly and en mass service attractive. To observe the new corrosive dynamics of social phenomenology between manipulative fetishisation (probability) and self-trivialization (possibility), the cyber-social platforms – these dustbins of human empathy in the muddy suburbs of consciousness – are particularly interesting.
Facebook itself is a perfect example of how to utilize (to simulate, instead of to stimulate and empathically live) human contents. Its toolkit offers efficient, rationalized, predictable, clean, transparent, and most intriguing of all, very user-friendly convenient reduction of all possible relations between two individuals: ‘friend’, ‘no-friend’. It sets a universally popular language, so standardized and uncomplicated that even any anonymous machine can understand it – a binary code: ‘1’ (friend) ‘0’ (no-friend), or eventually ‘1’ (brother/sister), ‘1/0’ (friend), ‘0’ no-friend – just two digits to feed precise algorithmic calculations. Remember, number is the king. Gott ist tot, dear Nietzsche – so are men.
Be it occupied or besieged, McDonalds will keep up its menu. Instead, we should finally occupy ourselves by de-pirating enormous tweet/mob noise pollution in and all around us. It is a high time to replace the dis-conceptual flux on streets for a silent reflection at home.
Sorry Garcin, hell is not other people. Hell are we!!
In his emotionally charged speech of December 2011, President Obama openly warned the US citizens: “Inequality distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists (…) the wealthiest Americans are paying the lowest taxes in over half a century (…) Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1%. One per cent! (…) The free market has never been a free license to take whatever you want from whoever you can…”
(The Oswatomie High School, Kansas, 06 December 2011, the While House Press Release).
Two months before that speech, the highly respected, politically balanced and bipartisan Budget Office of the US Congress (CBO) released its own study “Trends in the Distribution of Household Income between 1979 and 2007” (October 2011). The CBO finds that, between 1979 and 2007, income grew by: 275% for the top 1% of the US households, 65% increase for the next 19% of households, less than a 40% increase for the following segment of households of the next 60%, and finally only an 18% income increase for the bottom of 20% of the US households. If we consider an inflation for the examined period of nearly 30 years, then the nominal growth would turn to a negative increase in real incomes for almost 80% of the US households; a single digit real income increase for the upper 19% of households; and still a three-digit income growth for the top 1% of population.
According to the available internet search engine counters, this CBO study has been retrieved 74,000 times since posted some 3 months ago. For the sake of comparison, an average clip of great-granddaughter of ultra-rich, billionaire Conrad Hilton is clicked on YouTube over 31 million times. Roughly 3 million Americans would represent the top 1% of its population. Who are other 99% – pardon, 28 million individuals – interested in trivial clip/s (with obscure but explicit lines: They can’t do this to me, I’m rich) of Miss Paris?
Remember what I asked at the beginning of this article: If humans hardly ever question fetishisation or oppose the (self-) trivialization, why then is the subsequent brutalization a surprise to them?
* This is the so-called FB3 article (Is there life after Facebook? III – the Cyber Goo(g)lag Revelations). Its early version was first published by the US Journal of Foreign Relations /12 January 2012/.
1. Weber, M. (1951), Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft – Grundriss der verstehenden Sociologie (Economy and Society), Tübingen, J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck)
2. Ritzer, G. (1993), The McDonaldization of Society: An Investigation into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life, Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press
3. Zappa, F.V. (1989), The Real Frank Zappa Book, Touchstone (1999 Edition)
4. Schlitz, M. (1998), On consciousness, causation and evolution, Journal of Parapsychology (61: 185-96)
5. Fukuyama, F. (2002), Our Posthuman Future – Consequences of the Biotech Revolution, Profile Books, London (page: 126/232)
6. Bajrektarevic, A. (2004), Environmental Ethics – Four Societal Normative Orders, Lectures/Students Reader, Vienna (IMC University Krems), Austria
7. Mumford, L. (1967), Technics and Human Development – Myth of the Machine (Vol. 1), Mariner Books (Ed. 1971)
8. McTaggart, L. (2001), The Field, HarperCollins Publishers
From nanotechnology to solar power: Solutions to drought
While the drought has intensified in Iran and the country is facing water stress, various solutions from the use of solar power plants to the expansion of watershed management and nanotechnology are offered by experts and officials.
Iran is located in an arid and semi-arid region, and Iranians have long sought to make the most of water.
In recent years, the drought has intensified making water resources fragile and it can be said that we have reached water bankruptcy in Iran.
However, water stress will continue this fall (September 23-December 21), and the season is expected to be relatively hot and short of rain, according to Ahad Vazifeh, head of the national center for drought and crisis management.
In such a situation, officials and experts propose various solutions for optimal water management.
Alireza Qazizadeh, a water and environment expert, referring to 80 percent of the arid regions in the country, said that “Iran has one percent of the earth’s area and receives only 36 percent of renewable resources.
The country receives 250 mm of rainfall annually, which is about 400 billion cubic meters, considering 70 percent evaporation, there is only 130 billion cubic meters of renewable water and 13 billion cubic meters of input from border waters.”
Referring to 800 ml of average rainfall and 700 mm of global evaporation, he noted that 70 percent of rainfall in Iran occurs in only 25 percent of the country and only 25 percent rains in irrigation seasons.
Pointing to the need for 113 billion cubic meters of water in the current year (began on March 21), he stated that “of this amount, 102 billion is projected for agricultural use, 7 percent for drinking and 2 percent for industry, and at this point water stress occurs.
In 2001, 5.5 billion cubic meters of underground resources were withdrawn annually, and if we consider this amount as 20 years from that year until now, it means that we have withdrawn an equivalent of one year of water consumption from non-renewable resources, which is alarming.”
The use of unconventional water sources can be effective in controlling drought, such as rainwater or river runoff, desalinated water, municipal wastewater that can be reused by treatment, he concluded.
Rasoul Sarraf, the Faculty of Materials at Shahid Modarres University, suggests a different solution and states that “To solve ease water stress, we have no choice but to use nanotechnology and solar power plants.
Pointing to the sun as the main condition for solar power plant, and while pointing to 300 sunny days in the country, he said that at the Paris Convention, Iran was required to reduce emissions by 4 percent definitively and 8 percent conditionally, which will only be achieved by using solar power plants.
Hamidreza Zakizadeh, deputy director of watershed management at Tehran’s Department of Natural Resources and Watershed Management, believes that watershed management can at least reduce the effects of drought by managing floods and extracting water for farmers.
Amir Abbas Ahmadi, head of habitats and regional affairs of Tehran Department of Environment, also referring to the severe drought in Tehran, pointed to the need to develop a comprehensive plan for water management and said that it is necessary to cooperate with several responsible bodies and develop a comprehensive plan to control the situation.
He also emphasizes the need to control migration to the capital, construction, and the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan of Tehran city.
While various solutions are proposed by officials and experts to manage water and deal with drought, it is necessary for the related organizations to work together to manage the current situation.
Mohammad Reza Espahbod, an expert in groundwater resources, also suggested that while the country is dealing with severe drought due to improper withdrawal of groundwater and low rainfall, karst water resources can supply the whole water needed by the country, only if managed.
Iran is the fifth country in the world in terms of karst water resources, he stated.
Qanats can also come efficient to contain water scarcity due to relatively low cost, low evaporation rates, and not requiring technical knowledge, moreover, they proved sustainable being used in perpetuity without posing any damages to the environment.
According to the Ministry of Energy, about 36,300 qanats have been identified in Iran, which has been saturated with water for over 2,000 years.
In recent years, 3,800 qanats have been rehabilitated through watershed and aquifer management, and people who had migrated due to water scarcity have returned to their homes.
Water resources shrinking
Renewable water resources have decreased by 30 percent over the last four decades, while Iran’s population has increased by about 2.5 times, Qasem Taqizadeh, deputy minister of energy, said in June.
The current water year (started on September 23, 2020) has received the lowest rain in the past 52 years, so climate change and Iran’s arid region should become a common belief at all levels, he lamented.
A recent report by Nature Scientific Journal on Iran’s water crisis indicates that from 2002 to 2015, over 74 billion cubic meters have been extracted from aquifers, which is unprecedented and its revival takes thousands of years along with urgent action.
Three Iranian scientists studied 30 basins in the country and realized that the rate of aquifer depletion over a 14-year period has been about 74 billion cubic meters, which is recently published in Nature Scientific Journal.
Also, over-harvesting in 77 percent of Iran has led to more land subsidence and soil salinity. Research and statistics show that the average overdraft from the country’s aquifers was about 5.2 billion cubic meters per year.
Mohammad Darvish, head of the environment group in the UNESCO Chair on Social Health, has said that the situation of groundwater resources is worrisome.
From our partner Tehran Times
Technology and crime: A never-ending cat-and-mouse game
Is technology a good or bad thing? It depends on who you ask, as it is more about the way technology is used. Afterall, technology can be used by criminals but can also be used to catch criminals, creating a fascinating cat-and-mouse game.
Countless ways technology can be used for evil
The first spear was used to improve hunting and to defend from attacking beasts. However, it was also soon used against other humans; nuclear power is used to produce energy, but it was also used to annihilate whole cities. Looking at today’s news, we’ve learned that cryptocurrencies could be (and are) used as the preferred form of payments of ransomware since they provide an anonymous, reliable, and fast payment method for cybercriminals.
Similarly, secure phones are providing criminal rings with a fast and easy way to coordinate their rogue activities. The list could go on. Ultimately, all technological advancements can be used for good or evil. Indeed, technology is not inherently bad or good, it is its usage that makes the difference. After all, spears served well in preventing the extinction of humankind, nuclear power is used to generate energy, cryptocurrency is a promise to democratize finance, and mobile phones are the device of choice of billions of people daily (you too are probably reading this piece on a mobile).
However, what is new with respect to the past (recent and distant) is that technology is nowadays much more widespread, pervasive, and easier to manipulate than it was some time ago. Indeed, not all of us are experts in nuclear material, or willing and capable of effectively throwing a spear at someone else. But each of us is surrounded by, and uses, technology, with a sizeable part of users also capable of modifying that technology to better serve their purposes (think of computer scientists, programmers, coding kids – technology democratization).
This huge reservoir of people that are capable of using technology in a way that is different from what it was devised for, is not made of just ethical hackers: there can be black hats as well (that is, technology experts supporting evil usages of such technology). In technical terms, the attack vector and the security perimeter have dramatically expanded, leading to a scenario where technology can be easily exploited for rogue purposes by large cohorts of people that can attack some of the many assets that are nowadays vulnerable – the cybersecurity domain provides the best example for the depicted scenario.
Fast-paced innovation and unprecedented threats
What is more, is that technology developments will not stop. On the contrary, we are experiencing an exponentially fast pace in technology innovation, that resolves in less time between technology innovations cycles that, while improving our way of living, also pave the way for novel, unprecedented threats to materialize. For instance, the advent of quantum computers will make the majority of current encryption and digital signature methods useless and what was encrypted and signed in the past, exposed.
The tension between legitimate and illegitimate usages of technology is also heating up. For instance, there are discussions in the US and the EU about the need for the provider of ICT services to grant the decryption keys of future novel secure applications to law enforcement agencies should the need arise –a debatable measure.
However, technology is the very weapon we need to fight crime. Think of the use of Terahertz technology to discover the smuggling of drugs and explosives – the very same technology Qatar has successfully employed. Or the infiltration of mobile phone crime rings by law enforcement operators via high tech, ethical hacking (as it was the case for the EncroChat operation). And even if crime has shown the capability to infiltrate any sector of society, such as sports, where money can be laundered over digital networks and matches can be rigged and coordinated via chats, technology can help spot the anomalies of money transfer, and data science can spot anomalies in matches, and can therefore thwart such a crime – a recent United Nations-sponsored event, participated by the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) Qatar and the College of Science and Engineering (CSE) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) discussed the cited topic. In the end, the very same technology that is used by criminals is also used to fight crime itself.
Don’t get left behind
In the above-depicted cybersecurity cat-and-mouse game, the loser is the party that does not update its tools, does not plan, and does not evolve.
In particular, cybersecurity can help a country such as Qatar over two strategic dimensions: to better prevent/detect/react to the criminal usage of technology, as well as to advance robustly toward a knowledge-based economy and reinforce the country’s presence in the segment of high value-added services and products to fight crime.
In this context, a safe bet is to invest in education, for both governments and private citizens. On the one hand, only an educated workforce would be able to conceptualize/design/implement advanced cybersecurity tools and frameworks, as well as strategically frame the fight against crime. On the other hand, the same well-educated workforce will be able to spur innovation, create start-ups, produce novel high-skill products, and diversify the economy.
In this context, Qatar enjoys a head start, thanks to its huge investment in education over the last 20 years. In particular, at HBKU – part of Qatar Foundation – where we have been educating future generations.
CSE engages and leads in research disciplines of national and global importance. The college’s speciality divisions are firmly committed to excellence in graduate teaching and training of highly qualified students with entrepreneurial capacity.
For instance, the MS in Cybersecurity offered by CSE touches on the foundations of cryptocurrencies, while the PhD in Computer Science and Engineering, offering several majors (including cybersecurity), prepares future high-level decision-makers, researchers, and entrepreneurs in the ICT domain – the leaders who will be driving the digitalization of the economy and leading the techno-fight against crime.
Enhancing poverty measurement through big data
Authors: Jasmina Ernst and Ruhimat Soerakoesoemah*
Ending poverty in all its forms is the first of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While significant progress to reduce poverty had been made at the global and regional levels by 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic has partly reversed this trend. A significant share of the population in South-East Asia still lacks access to basic needs such as health services, proper nutrition and housing, causing many children to suffer from malnutrition and treatable illnesses.
Delivering on the commitments of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and leaving no one behind requires monitoring of the SDG implementation trends. At the country level, national statistics offices (NSOs) are generally responsible for SDG data collection and reporting, using traditional data sources such as surveys, census and administrative data. However, as the availability of data for almost half of the SDG indicators (105 of 231) in South-East Asia is insufficient, NSOs are exploring alternative sources and methods, such as big data and machine learning, to address the data gaps. Currently, earth observation and mobile phone data receive most attention in the domain of poverty reporting. Both data sources can significantly reduce the cost of reporting, as the data collection is less time and resource intensive than for conventional data.
The NSOs of Thailand and the Philippines, with support from the Asian Development Bank, conducted a feasibility study on the use of earth observation data to predict poverty levels. In the study, an algorithm, convolutional neural nets, was pretrained on an ImageNet database to detect simple low-level features in images such as lines or curves. Following a transfer learning technique, the algorithm was then trained to predict the intensity of night lights from features in corresponding daytime satellite images. Afterwards income-based poverty levels were estimated using the same features that were found to predict night light intensity combined with nationwide survey data, register-based data, and geospatial information. The resulting machine learning models yielded an accuracy of up to 94 per cent in predicting the poverty categories of satellite images. Despite promising study results, scaling up the models and integrating big data and machine learning for poverty statistics and SDG reporting still face many challenges. Thus, NSOs need support to train their staff, gain continuous access to new datasets and expand their digital infrastructure.
Some support is available to NSOs for big data integration. The UN Committee of Experts on Big Data and Data Science for Official Statistics (UN-CEBD) oversees several task teams, including the UN Global Platform which has launched a cloud-service ecosystem to facilitate international collaboration with respect to big data. Two additional task teams focus on Big Data for the SDGs and Earth Observation data, providing technical guidance and trainings to NSOs. At the regional level, the weekly ESCAP Stats Café series provides a knowledge sharing platform for experiences related to the impact of COVID-19 on national statistical systems. The Stats Café includes multiple sessions dedicated to the use of alternative data sources for official statistics and the SDGs. Additionally, ESCAP has published policy briefs on the region’s practices in using non-traditional data sources for official statistics.
Mobile phone data can also be used to understand socioeconomic conditions in the absence of traditional statistics and to provide greater granularity and frequency for existing estimates. Call detail records coupled with airtime credit purchases, for instance, could be used to infer economic density, wealth or poverty levels, and to measure food consumption. An example can be found in poverty estimates for Vanuatu based on education, household characteristics and expenditure. These were generated by Pulse Lab Jakarta – a joint innovation facility associated with UN Global Pulse and the government of Indonesia.
Access to mobile phone data, however, remains a challenge. It requires long negotiations with mobile network operators, finding the most suitable data access model, ensuring data privacy and security, training the NSO staff and securing dedicated resources. The UN-CEBD – through the Task Team on Mobile Phone Data and ESCAP – supports NSOs in accessing and using mobile phone data through workshops, guides and the sharing of country experiences. BPS Statistics Indonesia, the Indonesian NSO, is exploring this data source for reporting on four SDG indicators and has been leading the regional efforts in South-East Asia. While several other NSOs in Asia and the Pacific can access mobile phone data or are negotiating access with mobile network operators, none of them have integrated it into poverty reporting.
As the interest and experience in the use of mobile phone data, satellite imagery and other alternative data sources for SDGs is growing among many South-East Asian NSOs, so is the need for training and capacity-building. Continuous knowledge exchange and collaboration is the best long-term strategy for NSOs and government agencies to track and alleviate poverty, and to measure the other 16 SDGs.
*Ruhimat Soerakoesoemah, Head, Sub-Regional Office for South-East Asia
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